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As Families Change, So Must the Safety Net

Social-protection programs have historically focused on reducing family poverty. But governments should instead strengthen the agency of families, enabling them to act as natural buffers against economic and social shocks, through policies that promote intergenerational integration and solidarity.

NEW DELHI – This year marks the 30th anniversary of the United Nations’ International Year of the Family (IYF). In the decades since the IYF was proclaimed, demographic shifts, technological transformations, migration, urbanization, and climate change have upended societies around the world. Responding effectively to these changes requires revisiting prevailing approaches to social protection and shifting the policy focus to strengthening intergenerational solidarity.

The International Labour Organization Convention 102, the first (and, so far, only) international treaty to address social security, sets minimum standards for the provision of family (or child) benefits in the form of periodic cash transfers, in-kind assistance (food, clothing, housing), or a combination of the two. Around the time of its adoption in 1952, many European countries began developing generous welfare systems. In 2020, expenditure on family/children benefits in the EU amounted to 8.3% of total expenditure on social benefits. It was as high as 16.2% in Poland and 15.7% in Luxembourg; Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Denmark, and Sweden also recorded double-digit shares. But they are not alone: more than 120 low- and middle-income countries have adopted cash-transfer programs for poor families.

Most of these policies focus on reducing family poverty or offering family-sensitive social protection, such as conditional cash transfers or allowances for the birth of a child, medical care, and school tuition, as well as food rations for female-headed households. Such measures have helped families cope with the burden of caring for ill relatives, improved families’ nutritional status, and reduced infant mortality, school absenteeism, and child labor.